More college students are eligible for food stamps during the pandemic — but many don’t know that

By: - April 19, 2021 1:35 pm

Michigan State University | Michael Gerstein

When the pandemic first hit last year, many college students were left unemployed when businesses closed and colleges went virtual, creating an even greater population of young adults in Michigan who struggle with food insecurity.

But this problem isn’t new in Michigan. 

Revised eligibility requirements for SNAP benefits

  • Families are unable to contribute to their college costs
  • College or university considers the students eligible for a federal or state work study program, regardless of whether they are enrolled in the program. 
  • Students must attend college at least half-time
  • Students must meet income and other requirements for food assistance

In 2015, almost 1.5 million people in Michigan were food insecure, or struggle accessing nutritious, affordable food, according to the Food Access in Michigan Project — roughly 15% of the population.

Among those Michigan residents are thousands of college students each year who also struggle with affording food. 

On April 1, Michigan expanded eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to include approximately 200,000 more college students struggling financially during the pandemic. This expansion alone could include more than one-third of Michigan’s nearly 553,000 college students.

The benefits could be as much as $234 per month for college students.

Prior to the SNAP eligibility changes, college students would not be eligible for food assistance unless they were working 20 hours a week or meet certain exemptions. 

“Many Michigan college students lost their jobs due to no fault of their own as a result of the pandemic,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel. “Even before the pandemic, many students struggled to afford enough food while paying for college. These new changes will help students complete their education and reduce their food insecurity.”

A temporary fix to student hunger

The new eligibility expansion is only temporary, however, and is set to expire 30 days after the federal public health emergency for the pandemic ends. Once these benefits expire for many college students, advocates are concerned there will be many students left out who will continue to struggle with food insecurity.

Ben Gerstein, a senior at University of Michigan and the former student body president, spends much of his time researching food insecurity among college students and trying to find solutions to make food resources more available. 

But he is concerned now that the temporary provision won’t have a long-lasting effect to support struggling students.

“[The SNAP eligibility requirements prior to the expansion] demands excessive work-study program commitments and demands that students allocate their time to either being in class or working so that they can eat,” said Gerstein. “And I think that’s where the system has a problem. It’s not really empathetic from that perspective.”

However, even now, many of those students who are now eligible under the new guidelines may not take advantage of the assistance program.

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Lack of access and education for students perpetuates the issue 

A national study by the Hope Center, a Philadelphia-based research organization aimed at addressing students’ basic needs gauged students’ needs during the pandemic and their awareness of public assistance. It was conducted between April 20 and May 15, 2020.

The study found that 44% of community college students and 38% of students at four-year universities experienced some level of food insecurity. 

But not many of these students were aware that they qualify for SNAP and there was a stark disparity in these numbers for Black and white students. 

About 10% of white students didn’t know about SNAP benefits and 67% of white students believed they didn’t qualify, compared to 15% of Black students who didn’t know about SNAP and 46% of Black students who believed they weren’t eligible. 

Black students were more likely to apply, however, at 25%, compared to 13% white students.

Nationally, under the previous SNAP requirements, only 18% of college students were able to receive the food assistance benefits and only 3% of those students actually received them.

The stigma of receiving federal assistance for food could also be part of what is holding back many students from applying to SNAP.

“It’s the fact that the environment of a campus, like the University of Michigan, inherently caters to wealthier students. And so, as it might be, receiving extra assistance can be part of the process of further marginalization,” Gerstein said.

With the rising costs of tuition, housing and textbooks, which averages about $10,500 per year for four-year colleges in Michigan, the college experience often caters to students who already have access to resources, leaving behind lower-income students who may be struggling with hunger.

“The climate of a campus feels like it expects its students to get through the college experience without considering the barriers that students of low socio-economic status have, and that’s really where the threat and the stigma gets perpetuated,” Gerstein said.  

‘Dramatic increase’ in number of people needing food assistance

On-campus resources for students

Although the college experience has historically left out underprivileged students, many universities do offer resources to help support students through grants, meal plans and food pantries. 

Nicole Edmonds, director of the Michigan State University food bank, said that the food bank isn’t necessarily seeing an increase in the amount of students visiting during the pandemic, but she speculates that this is likely because many students did not return to campus this year. 

“But what I have been seeing is that there may be a different population of students who maybe didn’t use us before. Maybe they are domestic, local students who might have lost jobs on campus or are in the hospitality industry,” Edmonds said.

According to 2018 data from the Michigan State University food bank, the university estimates that 2,200 of the student population, or about 4.5%, experiences food insecurity. 

U of M estimates its number of students struggling with food insecurity to be much higher, at about 30%. 

Keith Soster, the U of M director of sustainability and student and community engagement for Michigan dining and the oversight director of the university’s food pantry, the Maize and Blue Cupboard, said that it has seen an increase in students visiting the pantry. 

Part of the role at the food pantry is to help students find out if they are eligible to receive SNAP benefits and assist them with applying, something that Soster expects to see increase as more students become eligible under the new guidelines. 

“When COVID first hit and students were asked to return home, there were students that, for whatever reason, couldn’t get back home,” Soster said. “So last summer, when you would think that it would be fairly quiet on our campus, we still had an uptick in shoppers at the Maize and Blue Cupboard.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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